Friday, February 20, 2009

Forget about it

If you could take a pill that would permanently reduce the emotional impact of a stressful memory without losing the factual recall, would you want to?

Beta blockers may let you do that: take a pill, deliberately recall the stressful memory, and let the brain rewire the memory a bit to permanently reduce the emotional impact. Repeat as needed, or at least that’s the theory. Researchers are currently testing it with PTSD patients and touting it in the news.

We have natural healing processes that can, when they are working well, help us gradually cope with traumatic experiences. PTSD is typically defined as a set of symptoms that are interfering with a patient’s life more than a year after the initial trauma. Does that mean we should accept being put in a state of fear and anger when recalling a traumatic event for anything up to a year, just because that’s been considered a normal response? Would you rather suppress the fear and anger after a month? After a week? After a couple of hours?

If this became a common treatment, I’m sure people would have widely variable threshholds for treatment just like we do with many other problems, and it seems unlikely to create an affectless society. But before seeking treatment myself, I’d be really concerned what other emotional impacts this might suppress aside from fear and anger. Sit here, take this pill, and for the next several hours try not to think about any of your joyful or spiritually meaningful memories whose emotional impact you don’t want to lose.

For a deeper look, I strongly recommend reading “Better” Memories? The Promise and Perils of Pharmacological Interventions, a 2003 staff working paper from the President’s Council on Bioethics.

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